Isuzu History

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Isuzu History



 1916 - present
Although Isuzu only produced a small range of cars, it has essentially been a commercial truck and chassis manufacturer. In 1916, vehicles were built under the company name of Tokyo Ishikwajima Dockland Company Ltd.

This changed in 1937 to the Tokyo Jidosha Kogyo (Automotive Industry) Co Ltd; it was this company which was the beginning of Isuzu Motor Ltd. Truck production began in 1939 and by 1943 the diesel engines which the company had designed and developed were being fitted to its vehicles; Isuzu had established the formula which was to make it a leader in the post-war era.

In order to market cars, Isuzu signed a ten year agreement with Rootes Motors to assemble Hillman Minx saloons. These cars were built up from 'knocked-down form' between the early fifties and 1957, by which time they had become completely Japanese manufactured.

Isuzu Trucks

Primarily, Isuzu has been a truck manufacturer and, in 1974, held some 62% of the medium-heavy truck market in Japan. Besides this, 40% of all heavy trucks and 45% of all light commercial transport in Japan were also Isuzu products. The remainder went for export to South-East Asia, Africa and America.

The truck range was extensive and, by 1974, Isuzu were offereing its operators a huge choice of cabs, frames, and special bodies, as well as multiple-axle combinations and four and six-wheel drive for off-road vehicles.

To power the whole range there were no less than two four-cylinder and five six-cylinder diesel engines, the largest being 732 cubic inches in swept volume. At the lower end of the 1974 truck range was the KB30LU which was built by Isuzu for distribution in the USA by General Motors.

The very popular Chevy LUV (light utility vehicle), as it was called, made large inroads into the leisure-vehicle market. It was powered by a single-overhead-camshaft, four-cylinder, in-line, water-cooled 110 cube engine, producing 75 bhp. Of course, this relationship with GM would prove fortuitous - aka Holden Gemini.

The Japanese Self Defence Force

Isuzu were also manufacturing a large number of four-wheel-drive and six-wheel-drive 2½-ton military trucks for the Japanese Self Defence Force (Army). Similar to American tactical trucks of the same class, these military vehicles were available commercially, with special bodies for earth moving and logging. In the late 1960s, Japanese car makers began to threaten Detroit's 'big three'.

Toyota and Nissan, then Japan's two largest automobile producers, were not only cutting into the US market, but were also beginning to dominate the Asian markets. To meet the challenge, General Motors began to look for a new Pacific production base. US antitrust laws precluded the purchase of Toyota or Nissan, and the Japanese government did not favour GM building its own plant. So, GM began to evaluate several of Japan's smaller auto makers, aquisition was the sole intention.

Isuzu Bellet RO Spider
Isuzu Bellet RO Spider (image from 18th Tokyo Motor Show).

Isuzu 1600 Florian
Isuzu 1600 Florian.

The American giant's knowledge of Isuzu was, at that time, limited. GM knew that the Japanese company was one of its country's fifty largest manufacturers and one of its country's oldest motor manufacturers. Its reputation was for building high-quality, heavy-duty trucks, but its management was somewhat suspect.

As a result, by 1969, the company was in need of working capital. Large Japanese companies rarely went bankrupt; usually the government or the company's bankers forced a merger with other, more profitable, Japanese firms.

GM Buy 34.2% for $56 million

Isuzu, at that time, was being guided towards a merger with Fuji, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries or Nissan. Isuzu's management, although they had little choice in the end, resisted the idea, in order to retain their own independence. After extensive negotiations, General Motors acquired 34.2% of Isuzu Motors for $56 million.

The integration of East and West created some interesting situations while the early ground work was being covered. The co-operation between the various Japanese industrial companies, as well as the suspicion of the GM consultants by the Isuzu management, was something that took the Americans by surprise. The Japanese guarded their future plans very closely, as GM were potential customers for many of the Isuzu company's various products.

The Isuzu Bellet

In 1974, the car-production side ran to three main Bellet models, all built along with the light trucks in Isuzu's newest factory at Fujisana. At the bottom of the range was the Bellett saloon, a simple two or four-door model of not very handsome lines. The power plant was by a conventional in-line, four-cylinder, 1584 cc, water-cooled unit with a five-bearing crankshaft and single carburettor. A two-door, twin-carburettor 1817 cc version was also built.

The Isuzu Florian 1800 TS

The next model in the range, and successor to the Bellett was the larger Florian. Built in four-door sedan and station wagon versions, the Florian was powered by a similar 1600 cc engine to the BeIlett. The most exciting Florian built was the 1800 TS, with a single-overhead-cam, 110 bhp 1800 cc engine and a pair of SU-style carburettors. This engine was also available in single-carb 100 bhp form.

Finally, there was the very stylish Isuzu coupe, with its Ghia-designed, two-door, 2+2 body. The "Isuzy" coupe had no less than four forms - XE, XG, XC, and XT. Heading the line was the XE, powered by a twin-overhead-cam, 1800 cc unit with fuel injection and a claimed 140 bhp (Japanese rating). The twin-cam, two-carb XG was rated at 125 bhp. The XC and XT 117S were twin and single-carburettor versions of the 1800 cc single-over head-cam engine and these were rated at 115 and 100 bhp respectively, the latter having a Rochester carburettor.

The Holden Gemini, Opel Kadett and Vauxhall Chevette

The car-construction side began to bear fruit after GM's involvement, as both companies were working closely on a new Isuzu car based on a GM Opel Kadett. Isuzu built some 120,000 of these units in 1975 of which half were exported to the US and marketed under the Oldsmobile banner.

By 1977 Isuzu had become used to GMs influence. The conundrum for the sales guy was to sell a German-designed car, built by a Japanese based GM subsidiary company, produced for the United States and then sold as a home-bred American model.

In 1987 Isuzu formed a partnership with Fuji Heavy Industries to form - SIA (Subaru-Isuzu Automotive) - and now there was a clear distinction between the maker adept at car manufacture, and the one best suited to concentrate on commercial vehicle manufacture. Isuzu still manufactured some models, such as the Impulse (Geo Storm) until 1992, and Stylus (Geo Spectrum) until 1993. SUV's remained re-badged GM models however.

Cash strapped, in 2006 GM would sell its shares in Isuzu to two Japanese trading companies and a bank for about $300 million to fund its turnaround in North America. By that time their share holding had dwindled to 7.9%. An opportunity for a car as brilliant as the Gemini had long passed into history - and for the folk here at Unique Cars and Parts, that is a shame - however we will toast the little Gemini for a long time to come - they were brilliant.

Also see: Isuzu Vehicle Production 1956 - 1979 | Isuzu Car Reviews | Holden Gemini Production | Holden Gemini Car Reviews

Isuzu Piazza
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